Taking ‘Back’ Wellbeing

This being my first post, it will probably a long one, but the most important as hopefully it explains what inspired me to start it in the first place. Aside from my lame enjoyment of a good pun, I have named this blog ‘Taking ‘Back’ Wellbeing’ as it is about just that – how I choose to take back my  health and wellbeing in every day life, despite the challenges I have faced.

I’ve come to understand that my story is unique for a number of reasons. Not many people have had two spinal surgeries, and even less have had two by the time they’re thirty. I’ve also come to realise recently that my condition is pretty rare to health professionals, as many of the practitioners and specialists I see are used to seeing patients in their 60-80’s with injuries like mine. I was once told by a surgeon that if he didn’t know me, he would’ve thought the MRI of my spine belonged to an overweight removalist in his 40’s. I’ve come to know this man in his 40’s quite well over the years when my body is complaining and I find myself lying on my back in pain. This guy – who I’ve fondly named Eugene – with his mullet and a good sense of humour – has become my alter ego.

Thanks to Eugene’s “she’ll be right, mate” approach, I have managed to pursue a healthy and active lifestyle, despite my injuries. Following my first surgery, in 2013 I took up cycling to increase my aerobic fitness. Within a year Eugene ended up with a cycling coach, training 6 days per week for the development squad of an elite women’s road cycling race team. Prior to my first surgery, I’d never identified myself as someone with any kind of sporting ability. I played sports socially and was usually the class clown in dance class, netball or soccer. When I was 7 my mum signed me up to the school netball team. They assigned me wing defence (perhaps due to my excessively long arms), and I stood on the court counting the number of red cars passing… that is how interested I was in sports. Nobody threw the ball to me and I never really tried to catch it. Until one day when Miss Centre threw the ball with gusto directly at my head – to this day I still believe it was intentional. I wouldn’t play netball for many years after that.

hotham-summit
First summit of Mt.Hotham with BOSS Racing Team in 2014. This was a huge achievement for me (and Eugene) after the first surgery.

But here I was, Eugene, a 28-year-old woman who others referred to as an “athlete”. I had overcome all odds to become a ‘Sporty Spice’, and for me this was a big deal. I love cycling for everything that it has shown me. Through cycling I experienced empowerment, self-discipline, self-love and respect, the feeling of setting a tough goal for myself and the rush you get when you achieve it. These were things that I had only loosely experienced in the past.  In recent years the skills I’ve learned through cycling have transferred into my injury rehab and management practices, and are what I consider to be the essential ingredient to managing an injury like mine, so that I can live an active and fulfilled life. I accept that there are some things I should not do if I want my spine to last the test of time, but I refuse to let my injury and my pain dictate my life, my pursuits and my experiences.

I am writing this propped up in a bed at my mother’s house on extended leave from work without much of a social life, recovering from my second spinal surgery in 5 years. This is the second time in my life that I have had to tap out of everything from work, social life, relationship, dreams, plans, travel – you name it. For now, everything is on hold. This is the second time in my life that everything in my day is about pain, sleeping, eating and recovering. Because that is all my body can handle.

hill-climbing-champs-2014
At the finish line of the 2014 ACT Hill Climbing Championships after winning a silver medal in the Elite Women’s Classification 

More so than last time around, this surgery has been a really tough pill to swallow. I haven’t ridden my bike for almost a year now due to the chronic pain, let alone compete or train like I was. Cycling was half of my social life, and for the last year this has also been taken away from me. I’ve been forced out of doing the things I love – it bites the big one. They say that writing down your experience is a great way to help you heal, and I really feel like I need that this time around. So  after much encouragement from friends, this blog is my journal of healing. And maybe, someone reading this will take something from my journey that helps them with theirs.

‘Back’ to the beginning…

This all began seven years ago, in 2009 when I was involved in a car accident. I was t-boned on the drivers’ side, right between the front and back door. The impact lifted my seat out of place and my pelvis went with it.  My car was thrown to the opposite side of the road, in a 180-degree spin. I remember having my hair tied in a bun and the force of the impact caused my hair to come untied, throwing my hair-tie out the open window and onto the road. I remember this really surprising me, given how difficult it is to remove a hair-tie without using hands. I always think of this when I am trying to explain the severity of the impact.

I walked away from the accident feeling fine. I was a waitress at the time, working three labour intensive jobs and in my last year of study at uni. At first I noticed a tightness in my left calf and just thought I was overdoing it. But the tightness gradually intensified into stabbing pains behind my knee. After about eight months, the pain was so intense that I had been forced to resign from all three of my jobs.

Because of my young age – I was 23 years old at the time – doctors and specialists seemed to dismiss what could actually be the problem. At this point in my life, I wasn’t Eugene. Like most people, I knew nothing about my body or anatomy, and still passed off my car accident was no big deal, which probably didn’t help with diagnosing the problem.

It took 14 months to discover the injury in my leg was due to significantly bulged discs in my L5/S1 and L4/5 vertebrae. The discs were crushing my sciatic nerve to the left side, so much so, that by this stage I had lost the feeling in my left foot, and the back of my left leg from the calf up to the buttock. I could have held a flaming cigarette lighter on my skin and I would not have felt a thing.

 

graduation-2010
Graduation day in November 2010. It hurt like hell to wear high heals with a spine injury, but I was determined to be just like everyone else.

I saw a number of Canberra surgeons and they all found that removing the L5/S1 disc completely and fusing the spine together was the only possible solution. They also advised against having this procedure, telling me that I was better off with the quality of life that I had – in my early 20’s, unable to work, unable to drive a car, unable to socialise, let alone have a relationship, start my career or travel the world.

I knew that this quality of life wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in pain and unable to work, but I didn’t know who to turn to. I felt like I had taken my health for granted and now I would never have the chance to make up for it, and for this I felt ashamed. I was so desperate not to accept that this was my fate, that I made a deal with myself: “If I ever make it out of this mess, I will never take my health for granted again.”

“if I ever make it out of this mess, I will never take my health for granted again.”

As someone who had little experience dealing with the medical world, it took me a really long time to realise that, at the end of the day, a surgeon or doctor or anyone could give me advice, but any decision was ultimately my own. I sought second, third and fourth opinions until I came across a surgeon, Dr Ashish Diwan at St. George Private Hospital, Sydney.  Dr Diwan suggested operating without fusing my spine, with a procedure called a microdiscectomy.

I had a microdiscectomy in February 2011, almost exactly 2 years after the car accident.  The surgeon shaved off the part of the disc that was on the nerve, relieving the compression, and leaving the remainder of the disc intact. The remaining disc is obviously smaller and will struggle over time to take the weight of the vertebrae above it, but the aim of the procedure is leave as much of the natural anatomy as possible.

Releasing the pressure off the nerve meant that after 12 months, the nerve roots that had deteriorated causing the numbness in my left leg begun to grow back again. It started as pins and needles in my toes and calf, and after about a year I had full feeling and was able to press start on my life again.

The delay caused by consultations with surgeons meant that, by the time I found Dr Diwan I had lost complete control of several major muscles in my left leg. I still struggle to recruit these muscles to this day.

As a result of an undiagnosed genetic predisposition, the first surgery also resulted in deep vein thrombosis (DVT) in my right leg. This meant that I had to undergo months of treatment and spend longer immobile in bed. The DVT drew my recovery out from 8 weeks to 6 months.

I went through some of the darkest times of my life pushing through the  rehabilitation to return to normal life again. Injury, pain and rehabilitation is a burden. A constant daily struggle with your body and your mind – how to ignore pain, embrace pain and how to stop it. It’s a constant process of self-care in every minute of the day. None of it was easy. Add the symptoms of pain relief medication to that, and it was a tough three years.

surgery-2-2016
A few hours after Surgery two in October 2016. I’m learning to revel in the silver linings of these difficult situation. There is always a positive if you are willing to look deep enough.

Whenever my body has forced me to ‘press pause’ on my life, like this very moment as I recovery from surgery number two, I find myself reflecting. Thinking about how this all started, what could’ve been if I didn’t have a back injury, reminding myself what I have and how lucky I am, and what’s next. Each time I come to the same conclusion – the car accident challenged me in ways that I could never have imagined. It forced me to grow up before I was ready.

It was one of the worst, but absolutely certainly one of the best things that has ever happened to me. It has molded me into the person I am and I have no regrets about it at all.

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